Connecting Lawyers to Lawyers

Finding the right lawyer for your special cases

I’m going to tell you a behind-the-scenes story about the famous movie Erin Brockovich—the movie that derives from the history of a small law firm taking on early Chromium Six cases. If it had been a documentary, it couldn’t have given us a better example of a case that would not have been possible, and would never have made it to the silver screen if not for the connecting of a lawyer to other lawyers. The story developed and became the case heard round the world all because some lawyers made contact with each other. The truth is that like any movie, this movie just scratches the surface of what really happened. Erin Brockovich was played by Julia Roberts. In real life, the real Erin is one of my dearest friends, and lives a short 10 minutes from my house in Calabasas. My name is George Hatcher, but I’m not the George in the movie. Like Erin, I’m not a lawyer. I’ve been around lawyers for most of my adult life. I have been working with attorneys for decades but I’ve never been employed by one. I run my own companies. Yearly, I book over 200,000 miles of foreign travel consulting for attorneys who have cases abroad.

When this case was developing, I wore the hat of advisor to Ed Masry. In the movie and in real life, Masry and Vititoe was the law firm that employed Erin. I had been advising Ed since 1968, long before Jim Vititoe joined. Ed Masry (played by Albert Finney) was one of my closest friends until the day he died. I was his advisor, strategist, and a litigation consultant. I wore a lot of hats. Still do.

The movie is about PG&E leaking a toxic chemical into the water in Hinkley California. In the movie, the firm of Masry and Vititoe decides to bring in another lawyer. The fact is the firm brought in two additional law firms because by itself, Masry and Vititoe wouldn’t have been able to handle the case. We had a meeting before additional lawyers were brought in.

You haven’t heard details of this part of the story, but I’m referring to a decision-making process that lots of lawyers have dealt with. Ed Masry, Erin Brockovich and I sat down in a restaurant, El Toritos, on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, to consider an offer from the defendants in Ed Masry’s Chromium Six case in Hinkley. Ed Masry was the lawyer at that table, and it was his case. We were kicking around a Santa Monica law firm’s offer of five million dollars plus some kind of medical monitoring for those who could prove at a medical clinic that they had been injured by Chromium Six. Ed had the trial experience to handle the case, but the real issue was how his little firm might be able to afford taking on a giant company like PG&E. It really was a case of David and Goliath.

We didn’t have a crystal ball. We were convinced that Chromium Six was big bad news, that Chromium Six was the toxin causing illness in Hinkley, and that it was probably just the tip of the iceberg. In spite of our conviction, there was risk because science hadn’t proven cause to the satisfaction of the law. I had already helped finance that case through friends of mine who put up money, but the well was running dry. Ed was tempted. Even though five million was a lot of money at the time, as Ed’s advisor, I was totally against it. Erin wouldn’t give up. She wouldn’t go for it, and she had a lot of say. She said that the $5 million offer was ridiculous. She had put in the footwork, met all the families and was convinced there weren’t enough resources nor enough money in that offer to even approach providing for the injured parties. When we left El Toritos, we had agreed that Ed would just call that law firm and tell them where to go. In the meantime, I was tasked to go to a bank friend of mine. I got the law firm a cash injection to hold them for a couple of months.

he money was too soon gone. The deposition request and discovery were kicking butt. It looked as if it were going to be doomsday for the case. Then we found Girardi and Keese; and Engstrom, Lipscomb and Lack—two different law firms, but they worked together. Finding this team is what saved the day. It’s what made it possible for that case to settle, as the movie publicized, for $333 million.

Expert Law Firms Can Bring Big Settlements

These two giant firms came in and worked their giant magic.

If it had not been for Tom Girardi (Girardi and Keese) and Walter Lack (Engstrom, Lipscomb and Lack), who knows what would have happened? For sure, there would not have been a movie. For sure these lawyers would never have looked at a lawyer split of something like $80 million dollars. It only happened because Girardi and Lack poured millions of dollars into the case in order to take on this giant PG&E. The Hinkley case had a happy ending because of the marriage of a lawyer to a lawyer. In the law, even if you’re a great lawyer, it takes money. When you get into a case like this one, they send out over a thousand depositions (imagine the cost factor of a thousand depositions.) You need to be ready to call their bluff. You need to say “We’re ready.” And be ready. Whatever the case is, you have to be prepared to handle whatever that big guy is going to throw at you.

The movie only covered the Hinkley case, which was successful because we married the money that was essential. Other cases followed that went after the manufacturer of the toxic chemical, Chromium Six. One settled for a lot of money, in the millions and millions of dollars. Then there was a similar case up north, the Kettleman case, also brought on by the same Hinkley issue of Chromium Six.

In all, the cases brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. The win does not happen overnight. The win takes time, sometimes a long time. The last case took eight or nine years to close. But it closed for a lot of money. The attorney fees were a lot of money. This case could not have happened without the deep pockets of a partner lawyer to take on the expense. It looks all shiny and wonderful in hindsight, but at one point, things were bad financially.

This financial issue over an expensive case is not an unusual scenario. It happens all the time. Remember in the restaurant we were actually considering settling the case for five million plus some kind of shoddy client monitoring of medicals where they would pick the victim up for the next 5, 6 or 7 years. How much would that have amounted to? Not enough. Instead of settling for less, the size of the award grew, because of solid backing.

This kind of success is a big example of partnering, the kind of partnering I want to help you with in your cases, big or small.

George Hatcher

* Film poster for Erin Brockovich (film) - Copyright 2000, Universal Pictures